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Perez at RM38:

Freshman congresswoman brings back the town hall

Marie Gluesenkamp Perez, Congresswoman for Washington's Third District, fielded questions at an informal town hall billed as Pints with Perez at River Mile 38 brewery last Thursday.

"A lot of my colleagues have basically been in politics their whole life," Perez started. "I was running an auto repair and machine shop with my husband. You go to these committee hearings and people are repeating talking points and you are not hearing a lot of things that I hear from my neighbors on topics. It's important that I hear from all of you. You have a different perspective on the way things are working than I do. Having a chance to actually engage, I will do my best to bring things forward and raise attention."

An agricultural bill created in 1964 that was designed to reduce poverty, increase nutrition, and support farms was on her mind. The $1.4 billion bill gets passed every year, she said, and includes $1.2 billion in SNAP benefits, which helps low income people purchase food. SNAP is more commonly known as food stamps.

For every dollar that Americans spend on food, only 11 cents now goes back to the farmer, Perez said, which is the lowest amount in the history of the bill.

"If you are in a rural community you are 23 percent more likely to be enrolled in SNAP," she said. "If we have impoverished farms, we have created more rural poverty."

She wondered how to create a food system that would put money back into local agriculture and support farms.

Perez also noted that the U.S. is importing almost 40 percent of the fresh produce that we eat.

"That should worry all of us," she said.

One person in the audience asked about critical race theory and parents having input in what is taught in public schools.

"I think there is real importance in having strong public schools that are adequately funded, but families need to be engaged in schools. I can't speak clearly to critical race theory," Perez responded.

"We turned our education system to focus entirely on academics," she added. "I think there are a lot of ways for people to be smart, and they are all valuable."

She listed shop class, drafting class, welding and home economics as examples.

"When we stopped taking those classes seriously we really lost a lot of the value of education that we were bringing," Perez said. "I can't think of anything more toxic than telling a kid what they are good at isn't good enough."

"Having a high school degree used to mean quite a bit," she added. "We have lost touch with that. Now we expect kids to get out of high school, pay for a college education and go into a ton of debt to do that. It's really important that we start treating teachers with respect, paying them well, investing in our skills and really diversifying what is on offer in schools."

Another listener said she was interested in seeing a functioning congress, and an improvement in bipartisanship.

Perez responded by talking about two things she considered "terrible." One was Citizens United, which she said allowed corporations to pay for seats, and took away from local people. It is one reason she will not take corporate PAC (Political Action Committee) checks.

The other matter was what she referred to as a safe seat, or someone elected in an area where Trump or Biden won by a large margin.

"You don't really have to work, you've just got a lifetime appointment," Perez said.

In her first three months, she's answered 17,000 constituent letters. Her average turnaround is 14 days, while the average turnaround for responses in Congress is 45, she said.

"These safe seats," Perez reiterated, "they don't have to work."

She went so far as to say that some of her colleagues didn't bother to have working phone lines after three months.

"You don't have the same level of responsiveness and accountability when you gerrymander everything into being these deep red or blue seats," Perez said. "We need more tippy seats."

This means she believes term limits are a pretty good idea, but acknowledges they also have their down side. With short term limits, there is a concern that power just accrues to unelected bureaucrats, she said. On the other hand, people in safe seats don't have to be accountable to their constituents.

"You see how power gets entrenched and it gets bad," Perez said.

There were questions about care for elderly people who need assistance in the home, the need in some areas of the county for cell towers, and importance of restoring salmon population for all users, recreational, commercial, and tribal.

Mike Beutler, Chief for the Puget Island Fire Department talked about serving in rural volunteer fire departments.

"We are a very small county within your territory," he said. "You have districts that have worked on million dollar plus budgets. A Vancouver firefighter makes more money than I have in my budget for a full year."

"I have a fire truck that is 37 years old," Beutler continued, "17 years beyond what the [National Fire Protection Service] says should be out of service. There is no way I can replace my engine with a new $500,000-$600,000 fire truck. There is the Assistance to Firefighters grant that is put out by FEMA every year. We have applied for grants to replace that fire truck, yet we get turned down and Vancouver, Clark County, these agencies with multimillion dollar budgets are receiving grants for health and wellness and all sorts of programs. Where is the fairness for these rural fire districts? We can barely operate."

Another firefighter chimed in about having to use 20 year old turnout gear and the problems with procuring Narcan, which is used to treat opioid overdoses.

"We're all volunteers, we all keep showing up to help our community and we can't really ask for more," Beutler said. "So I'm asking for someone who will go at the federal level and go back to FEMA and try to figure out what is going on with these grants and get that help to the fire districts that really need it, not the Vancouver's, Seattle's, Tacoma's , and so forth."

Perez was asked what it was like to be a freshmen in Congress, which was met with laughter from around the crowded room.

"It's wild," she said. "I think people think that politics is this rarefied air and you have to be very special to do it. It is very similar to running the auto repair shop, I think. I don't get paid before I do the job. I have to see who's coming through the door, and decide if they are there to be an honest broker or not and if I want to do business with them."

"There is a big gym that everyone goes to, there is also like a women's gym with a locker room that is member's only," she said. "I have had so many clothes stolen."

"My goal is to be here in the district as much as I can be," Perez added. "My dad was a pastor. It sort of reminds me of what I would see going on in the living room. You know about the hardest things going on in your community. You know whose kid can't get a spot in rehab, you know who is losing a truck, you're talking to the child abuse people, and the human trafficking people, but there are also really fun things."

Her favorite work it turns out is the constituent work.

"If there is something where your life intersects with the federal government and they are not working for you," she said. "That is so rewarding to me, to get medals back to people, to get their service records back to them, to get their taxes straightened out, or an answer around a Visa that they need."

"It's really meaningful," Perez said. "I'm here to be your advocate. The legislative stuff gets way too much attention, I'm here to run customer service. Please reach out, we want to be working with you."

 

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